SNIPER: Inside the Hunt

Truck Took Probe Down Wrong Road

By Sari Horwitz and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 5, 2003

This is the first of five excerpts from "Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation."

By late in the morning of Oct. 3, 2002, the full impact of what was happening had become clear to Montgomery County police and the entire Washington region. There was a sniper stalking the central part of the county, killing, it appeared, at random. Five people had been slain in 16 hours, four of them in the span of 2 hours and 17 minutes. This had occurred in a densely populated part of the Washington suburbs, roughly five miles long and three miles wide. Witnesses reported hearing a very loud gunshot, but none had seen anything of substance. There seemed to be no link among the victims, and they crossed racial and gender lines. There were two white men, a white woman, an Indian man and a Hispanic woman.

There was, however, what seemed to be one solid clue. Juan Carlos Villeda, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was working with a landscaping crew on the shopping center grounds near Leisure World in Silver Spring that morning. He told John Dassoulas, a Spanish-speaking police crime analyst, that he had seen one of the victims, Sarah Ramos, walk past a nearby post office, pick up a booklet on top of one of the mailboxes and sit on a bench. He saw her open the booklet. Moments later, he heard a loud explosion. He thought it was a tire blowing out. When he looked back at Ramos, he saw that she had been hit and was on the bench, shaking. Villeda then saw a white truck with a small cab and box-type rear speeding in front of Ramos. The truck turned onto a side street and headed toward Georgia Avenue.

Villeda could see exhaust belching from the tailpipe as the truck raced away. The truck had an engine that sounded like a diesel. It had purple or black lettering that was in English, which Villeda couldn't read. The truck had a dent in the rear and damage to the right rear bumper. Two men were inside.

In the coming days, as Villeda was interviewed over and over by Dassoulas, his report was to take on huge significance. White box trucks and vans were repeatedly stopped at gunpoint. They were seen by the public everywhere. White vans were, in fact, everywhere. There were more than 70,000 just in Maryland.

The search for the van was well underway by 9 that night when Gail Howard, owner with her husband of the Tropicana restaurant in Northwest Washington, walked out to a parking lot behind the restaurant to put several thousand dollars in receipts into her black Lexus. She was wary as she walked to the car. It was dark, and there were few other people around. An employee, Karl Largie, who knew old cars, was catching a smoke in the lot, talking on his cell phone and keeping watch.

Both noticed an old, dark-colored Chevy Caprice with tinted windows parked on Kalmia Road, an east-west side street that intersects with Georgia Avenue in front of the restaurant. They noticed that the car was facing west, with its rear facing Georgia Avenue. The area was quite dark, because the nearest streetlight was broken and flickering on and off. As Howard loaded the car, there was suddenly a loud boom. It sounded like a blown tire or a car backfire. Then came the sound of a bus screeching to a halt on Georgia Avenue. Largie told Howard that the boom was either a bus backfire or a gunshot. It was loud but sounded slightly muffled. Seconds later, they noticed the Caprice sliding west on Kalmia with its lights out. "Look at the idiot with his lights off," Largie said. Howard got in her car and headed home. Five minutes later, Largie reached Howard on her cell phone. Guess what? It was a gunshot.

At 9:20 p.m., after taking the bus from his house, Pascal Charlot was standing under a streetlight in a green-and-white polo shirt on the southeast corner of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road, about to cross the street, when a bullet tore through his chest. A woman sitting in her car happened to be looking at Charlot and thought he was smoking. She saw a puff of what detectives think was probably a spray of blood as the bullet struck and killed him.

It was not until two days later that Tony Patterson, the lead D.C. homicide detective on the Charlot case, was canvassing the neighborhood and interviewed the reluctant witnesses at the Tropicana. He had been wondering whom this old man could have made so angry, and when he heard the description of the Caprice, he was intrigued.

This was no white van. It was probably not even a white man's car. This sounded like a "hoopty," a fellow detective said when he heard of the Caprice. "Man, that's a brother's car." On Oct. 7, two days after he interviewed the witnesses, Patterson sent out a police teletype alerting fellow officers across the region to be on the lookout for the car that Howard and Largie had seen the night of the slaying.

Largie described the car as dark-colored, possibly burgundy, but he wasn't sure. The alert said it was burgundy, "an older model Chevrolet Caprice or vehicle of similar style . . . 4-door with dark tinted windows." The alert was addressed to all area law enforcement agencies and was to be read at all roll calls. "Any officer coming into contact with similar vehicles, please stop and identify all occupants."

But by this time the white van was already etched in the minds of the public -- and the police. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, appearing before the cameras in Rockville, had cautioned against "tunnel vision." He could not know that the very trap he had hoped to avoid had already been tripped. A reporter asked him at the news conference: What were the chances that the suspects were still in the white truck? Moose said he had to proceed as if they were. "We don't eliminate anything until the evidence eliminates it," he said. His investigators were trying to "fine-tune" the description of the white truck and get out an update.

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